A year ago, Gene McNary, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he wanted to limit work permits for immigrants in certain parts of the country. His proposal died when the agency's lawyers determined it would not be legal.

In March, McNary said worker identification cards would help prevent employment of illegal aliens. A month later, McNary took back his suggestion.

In June, McNary suggested the United States might provide loans to Nicaraguan refugees to ease their return home. That idea also bit the dust.

McNary's tendency to float ideas without consulting his boss, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, has not gone unnoticed at the Justice Department in the year since President Bush appointed McNary INS commissioner.

Top aides now are watching to see whether McNary can make the transition from St. Louis County executive, used to calling his own shots, to an agency director under an attorney general who hates surprises from subordinates. "He has some fence-mending to do," said one high-ranking Justice Department official.

McNary's relationship with top Justice officials is significant because, of all the agencies in the department, INS is probably most in need of help. Last month, Thornburgh appointed a committee headed by Norman A. Carlson, former director of the Bureau of Prisons, to try to bring the unwieldy agency under control.

In the past 18 months, INS has been hammered by internal auditors for the Justice Department, who cited widespread fiscal mismanagement; the agency's outgoing general counsel, who described it as "totally disorganized" and staffed by incompetents "at all levels"; and the General Accounting Office, which found serious, long-standing management problems.

In a report due in mid-January, Thornburgh's committee is expected to set forth how to bring about the changes the GAO said are needed. A main question, one administration official said, is "will it require a large infusion of funds?"

The earlier reports indicated that the agency, with a $1 billion budget and 15,000 employees, is lacking much of the basic machinery it needs to operate, including modern data processing and financial accounting systems. It also suffers from 10 years of growing fragmentation, with regional commissioners operating fiefdoms with little accountability. The agency is considered particularly weak in middle management, one administration official said, asking: "Who wants to go there?"

McNary, 55, came to the agency with a reputation as a tenacious, tough-minded manager that supporters said made up for his lack of experience in the immigration field. A former prosecutor, he had served for 14 years as St. Louis County executive, making friends along the way with George Herbert Walker, a local business executive and cousin of President Bush, and William T. Bush, another prominent businessman and the president's brother.

One of his main critics as INS commissioner has been the man he selected as the agency's general counsel, William P. Cook. In a series of confidential memos to Thornburgh's top deputy, Cook described McNary as a loose cannon and "a press release politician" who did not understand the complexities of immigration issues.

McNary, who has described his relations with the Justice Department as good, said in an interview that he has made "substantial progress" since he took the commissioner's job 14 months ago.

His primary accomplishment, according to Justice Department officials and McNary's aides, has been to gain control over the agency's budget and personnel. "The key is in the budget," McNary said. "If I have control of the budget, and I do," the regional commissioners "shouldn't be too independent."

He said that with further centralization, he will be able to ensure that agency resources are divided on the basis of workload, instead of "who among the four regional commissioners is the strongest negotiator." His plan for further reorganization is being studied by the Justice Department and the review committee.

McNary said he agreed with the bulk of a 177-page GAO report, but feels it failed to give him credit for some changes. "Much of what they recommended is easily identified. I identified it when I came in and have solved -- already taken action and corrected -- some of those things. And virtually everything else we not only agree with, but agreed with a long time ago and the correction is in motion," he said.

McNary took issue with GAO's complaint that INS lacked direction. He said his top five priorities are to gain control of the southern border; increase efforts to deport criminal aliens; put into effect new regulations on granting asylum; enforce sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens; and update the data processing system.

He said he agreed with GAO's assessment that "we're weak in accountability, in performance standards" and in many other areas. "It's not like turning around on a dime," he said.